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What would make me happy at work?

Student Career Placement Consultant

In talking with students on my campus over the past several years, I’ve learned that many of them never think about what would make them “happy” at work. They’ve thought about things such as the type of work they would like to do, the type of organization where they would like to do that work, and the city or state where they would like to live, but they haven’t explored what their “happiness factors” are might make one job “better” for them than another job. In my book, Start Your Career: 5 Steps to Finding the Right Job after College, I refer to this as the ability to “Envision a Satisfying Worklife.”

Several years ago, Gallup conducted a nationwide survey of workers to assess job satisfaction, and an astonishing 70% of the people who were polled said that they didn’t really like their jobs! Given that you will spend about a quarter of your adult life at work, you don’t want to be in that 70%. So what can you do to avoid it? You can start thinking now about the factors that would make you like—or hate—your job. I’m going to pose some questions to help you think about those factors, which may be able to help you conduct a more narrow—and more fruitful—job search.

Where do you want to live? As discussed in a previous post (see “Where do I want to live and work? Why do I want to live there?”), making a decision about the most appropriate location can be difficult, and sometimes it is out of your control. You may have to go where the jobs are for your field if there’s a geographical emphasis in certain parts of the country (or world). But you can at least spend some time thinking about what you expect that you would enjoy most: Urban, suburban, or rural environment? Oceans, lakes, rivers, mountains, hills, flatlands? Moderate climate or something more extreme? East coast, west coast, middle America? Snow or palm trees? Predominantly red state or blue state?

Where do you want to work? There are lots of considerations: Are you most interested in working in a for-profit, nonprofit, or government organization? Most jobs are going to be available in all three sectors (although the job titles may vary). Do you want to work for a large organization or a small one? There are advantages and disadvantages inherent in every size organization, and you need to think carefully about factors such as organizational culture, opportunities for advancement, flexibility of both work schedule and work assignments, value of benefits, complexity of procedures, co-worker and supervisor relationships, resources, job security, salary, and personal sense of accomplishment.

What type of relationship do you want to have with other employees? That is, do you look forward to being part of a team or would you rather work alone? Do you want a supervisor who will provide a significant amount of guidance and oversight or would you rather learn through trial and error? Are you comfortable with a strict organizational structure and chain of command or would you rather work somewhere with an open door policy?

In working with my students, I know that these are not easy questions to answer, and often you won’t know what is best for you until you have experience—either in an environment that has been good for you or one that has not. However, if you’ve done an internship or a co-op, or if you’ve had part-time jobs while in school—you may know more about what makes you happy than you realize.  My students can often readily answer the question: What would make you hate your job? They respond with answers such as long hours, no interaction with other people, difficult deadlines, a micromanaging boss, lengthy commute, low pay, and lack of respect.

If you haven’t had much experience in the workplace, talk with people who have—your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, and family friends—to see what they enjoy and dislike about their jobs and then think about how you would respond in similar environments.

Share your thoughts!